It is always potentially dangerous to write about a local church — even when one is writing positively! — but here I go:
While still on a study leave from Sunday morning preaching I decided to attend Crossway Community Church. I have heard for some time about the church and had the pleasure of meeting their senior pastor at a small dinner engagement in the home of a mutual friend. So, yesterday my wife and two children and I made the 1.5 hour drive to worship with Crossway. Whenever I go to another church I also go as an observer. I cannot help it. As far as I know my heart, it is not to be critical. I think that my purpose is to learn and to discern areas where we as a church (and I as a pastor) can improve. So, my thoughts were active as soon as I walked into the building.
I suspect that the attendance is normally around 1000 although I have not heard any specific statistics. I was pleasantly surprised and blessed by the evidences of unprofessionalism in some of the areas that we all strive as churches to improve in. We had to find the nursery ourselves and when we did drop off our son we didn’t get any kind of security measure to reassure us that no one else would pick him up. This was obviously an abnormality (judging from all the literature) and Jennie and I were not concerned as we knew that no one would dare to steal our son without him personally threatening them with their safety! It crossed our minds, however, that if they did need us for whatever reason during the service they would have no idea how to find us except by interrupting the preaching to ask if anyone knows the three year old who is holding the teachers hostage. Anyway, as I said this was an abnormality for sure and it actually hugely blessed my pastor’s soul! Only a pastor can really find a blessing in these things because we sometimes wonder if our church is the only one that drops the ball as we do. With all of the other things that are obviously going right I would have left in despair and discouragement! This place did not feel like a professional organization; it felt like the home of a church family. And I loved it.
But the greater blessing was the sense of Gospel-intentionality about the whole service. I felt like it was Gospel-compelled. This was not just in word, but it was almost palpable. Signs of strong leadership, deliberate action, and conscientious planning with Gospel purposes in mind were evident everywhere. Here are just several things that I very much liked about Crossway.
1. The facility is utilitarian and modest. It was a new building, but there was nothing extravagant about it. It seemed to say to the subconscious mind of every attender that the building was merely a tool, carefully maintained and gratefully used, to shelter the assembled believers who met there weekly. It was not a trophy of any one man’s accomplishments or a symbol of the collective bragging rights of that particular community. It was just a plain building; comfortable, practical, and dignified. As soon as I walked in the door, I told my wife, “They have the right perspective here.”
2. The worship music was congregational. And since I have several observations on this point, I’ll enumerate them alphabetically:
a. I am usually dissatisfied with the praise teams that I observe and listen to around the country. So often there is something distractive about them. Sometimes it is just one person; often it is an immature person on the team whose only interest in church seems to be that he can display his guitar skills. They seem to be showy, or they play ostentatiously with look-at-me flamboyancy, their body motions are exaggerated, or certain skill sets are highlighted and amplified at the expense of congregational worship. In short, too often the praise teams seem to be putting on a production, and usually they are bad enough that one is inclined to think that the only redeeming quality of their production is that the show was free of charge.
This was different. The band stood in a line at the back of the stage, almost as if to suggest that they were on stage merely because there was no other place for them to be (and there wasn’t). So, they had a withdrawn position. The best words that describe what I sensed as I began to sing are self-effacement and modesty. Modesty in musical leadership is the quality of being unassuming or moderate in the display of one’s abilities. One would assume that any who are assuming the responsibility of leading the covenanted people of God in corporate worship would conscientiously and fearfully adorn their style in modesty, but that is too rarely the case.
Yesterday, however, I had to force my mind off of the lyrics of the worship music to focus on the actual leadership in order to analyze what it was specifically that I appreciated about their music! And, of course, that was one of the very things that I appreciated. The musicians so effectively accompanied and facilitated the congregation that one noticed the congregation and their sung convictions more than the instruments. This is truly a Gospel effect on musicians, particularly when some instruments like the drums or electric guitar are particularly convenient for flair.
b. The music was elder led. I personally think that music should be led by God-called, church-appointed pastors. A man, a pastor, should lead the congregation and he is doing it from a position of authority. Nothing irritates me more when Christian leaders abdicate their responsibility as worship leaders simply because they can’t play the guitar. Too often an artsy pansy dressed like a metrosexual bounces on stage and suddenly croons into the microphone praise and worship clichés about loving Jesus and then proceeds to “lead” in 20 minutes of carefully choreographed music with perfectly timed prayers interspersed. Add to that the ubiquitous American sotte voce that is apparently necessary for a spirit of worship and you have the typical evangelical “worship” experience. God forbid that a man actually sound like a man when leading the congregation or praying!
Yesterday, however, there was a leader who spoke in strong, firm tones and who was obviously guiding the entire team that assisted him. His modesty and strength as a leader seemed to emanate from the worship team and not one of them displayed any kind of exhibitionism that draws attention and is so common on praise teams despite the fact that they all claim to be about turning attention to God. For example, the young man on the cajon drum and shaker contributed to the rhythm as if he wasn’t even there. I watched him. He was there; but he wasn’t. And that is what can be said for all the other musicians on that stage. In my mind that is effective teamwork to be able to fade the whole team away. I sat in a service recently where a middle-aged homeschool mom shook the shaker like she was the main feature and everybody else including the congregation and God were accompanying her. Reminded me of Al Smith’s tongue-in-cheek quip about a dream he had in which he was in a great choir in heaven “There were a thousand sopranos. There were a thousand altos. There were a thousand basses. And I was the tenor!”
These are subtleties (the modesty in clothing, motion, and playing) that combined together make a statement that instantly clarifies in one’s mind that the issue of worship music is not as superficial as organs or snare sets, contemporary or traditional. Any instrument can become an instrument of self-aggrandizement or personal flair, including the voice. Style of any kind can be harnessed by personal agenda. But when Gospel-centered leadership exercises its God-given authority to guide and restrain effective teams are forged. These worship teams are not just the musical staff but the entire congregation! They cooperate to instruct and admonish one another and worship God through congregational effort in such a way that no single individual is featured above another. This is truly remarkable.
(Obviously, I’m not discounting the place for solos and other types of prepared music, but I think that when the music is ostensibly congregational worship as many churches pretend, then it is particularly refreshing when it is actually congregational.)
3. I liked the preaching. Mike Bullmore was not speaking; another elder brought the Word to us, but it was a real pleasure to see that this local church is blessed with some depth. When God is working in a place there will be an increasing depth of teachers and the church will listen respectfully and with the same hopeful expectation they honor their regular preacher with because they know they will be fed. It was an excellent exposition of the Word and not rushed. And once again, my belief that good teaching inspires good singing was affirmed while hear the Word brought to us.
4. I was visiting. And I was a visiting pastor. So my perspective was much more analytical than most. My only dissatisfaction in the whole morning was that my focus in worship (when I actually quit thinking about the above mentioned details) was interrupted by the announcements and offering time. This is completely personal and we often change our order around here as well, but I couldn’t help but thinking when I sat down after 25 minutes of congregational worship that my heart and mind were immediately ready to hear the Word preached! Visitors are even less interested in hearing the mundane announcements and so forth than are the regular attenders, and this is one reason why we start our morning worship services with the announcements and then proceed directly from the music into the preaching. Of course, this is a tiny quibble, but it is nonetheless worthy of our consideration when we work out the order of our services.
I love the local church. Some are stronger than others. Some have glaring deficiencies. Some are corrupted to the core. Others are reflecting the glory of God. I love all of them. It was a real pleasure, however, to be in a church yesterday that is brilliantly displaying the Gospel. From the building to the cajon drum, the welcome packet to the preaching, I could discern intentionality and dignified modesty. And the intention was clearly Gospel-driven. The modesty was because God was actually there.